Environmentally Sound Nuclear Power

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Cooling Towers at Three Mile Island

Cooling Towers at Three Mile Island

I’m about to say some things that will annoy a lot of people in the environmental clique.

But, Hillary Clinton is starting to say some of these same things, so perhaps a sea change of attitudes towards nuclear power are in order.

First, Solar, Wind, and Water power are not going to produce enough power, to totally replace coal or oil fired power plants.

Second, cutting back on power production is not a viable option.

With the expected growth of third world nations (China alone has planned requirements for 300 Gigawatts of power generation by 2050, while current WORLD power generation is 350 Gigawatts) it’s not likely that we’ll be able to decrease power demand without significantly decreasing the population.

For many people, when you say Nuclear, the first things that come to mind are atomic bomb explosions, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.

While all three are “nuclear” events, the truth is, all are tied to last century’s technologies.

In the case of Chernobyl, it was a poor reactor design, coupled with poor control systems, and poor process, that lead to the disaster that keeps on giving.

In the case of Three Mile Island, it was process, that lead to the near catastrophic meltdown.

But, that’s all yesterday’s technology. There have been no new nuclear power plants started in the United States since the 1970s, and all of those that have been built used designs based in the 1960s, which used high pressure steam, generated by the heat of fission reactions, and required excessive amounts of cooling, monitoring, and control systems.

Very High Temperature Pebble Bed Reactor

Very High Temperature Pebble Bed Reactor

Today, there are a number of new designs (most of them have been built, and tested) that do not have catastrophic failure modes, lurking just around the corner from nominal operation.

For example, there’s the “Pebble Bed Reactor”, which is small enough to be assembled in mass-production fashion, inexpensively, where safety is based on the laws of physics, rather than added levels of control systems, highly skilled operators, or yard thick concrete walls.

There’s the “Integral Fast Reactor”, which was built, tested and evaluated in the 1980s, and retired in the 1990s due to nuclear non-proliferation policies of the Clinton administration. A core part of its design was the recycling of spent fuel, which meant that it produces a fraction of radioactive wastes that current reactors produce.

Integrated Fast Reactor

Integrated Fast Reactor

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories is researching a design they call the Small, Sealed Transportable, Autonomous Reactor, which is designed to be a passively safe, fast breeder reactor, with a 2-3 decade lifecycle, that would be leased and returned at the end of it’s useful life. It’s a clean, safe design, with negligible environmental impact.

The point is, these (and other) new reactor designs have none of the weaknesses of currently deployed nuclear power plants, minimal environmental impact, and in at least one case, strongly support the production of hydrogen, for a hydrogen fuel based economy.

Taken in tandem with other environmentally friendly power generation methods, and with a strong dose of both conservation (using less), and increasing efficiency (using what you use, better), they offer a path out of a hydrocarbon (coal and oil) infrastructure, to one that can support the economic development needed to bring everyone on the planet’s standard of living up to an acceptable minimum.

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